Academic journal article Canadian Slavonic Papers

Negative Images of Jews in Recent Russian Literature*

Academic journal article Canadian Slavonic Papers

Negative Images of Jews in Recent Russian Literature*

Article excerpt

With the advent of perestroika and the relaxation of censorship, Russian writers were freed from the taboos of the Soviet era. While this was undoubtedly liberating and intellectually stimulating, it also opened the door to all manner of pent-up hostility, prejudices, and ethnic hatred, including anti-Semitism. Many of the negative images and themes of Jews in recent Russian literature can be traced back to the nineteenth century. They continued under a variety of guises within both popular and high culture, especially during the latter half of the Soviet period, despite formal prohibitions.

After providing some historical background, this paper will focus on publications from the post-perestroika years. I will attempt to identify current anti-Semitic themes and views, compare them to Imperial and Soviet precedents, and assess their significance and popularity at present.

It is no secret that many Russian Imperial officials, including the last two tsars, were openly anti-Semitic. The same could be said for a large number of the elected delegates to the Third and Fourth State Dumas: anti-Jewish slurs were commonplace in public discourse, especially in the speeches of deputies from the far-right parties (notably N. Markov and V. Purishkevich). In fairness, not all rightists were anti-Semites, and not all anti-Semites advocated extreme measures. Thus V. Shul'gin, author of the well-known (and recently reprinted) anti-Jewish brochure What We Don ? Like About Them,] joined with the liberal Russian intelligentsia in publicly condemning pogroms as well as Blood-Libel charges, i.e., the preposterous allegation that Jews ritually used the innocent blood of a slaughtered Christian child to bake their matzos (unleavened bread) for Passover. The most widely publicized of these calumnies resulted in the 1913 trial in Kyiv of Mendel Beilis.2

For the most part, among the educated and liberal classes of late Imperial Russia (as elsewhere in Europe),3 it was considered nekul'turno (gauche) to espouse views that were overtly anti-Semitic-although that did not stop such leading lights as A. Pushkin, N. Gogol, I. Aksakov, M. Bakunin, F. Dostoevsky, and even A. Chekhov. Gogol's "Taras Bul'ba," Bakunin's "Polémique contre les Juifs," Dostoevsky's "Diary of a Writer," and Aksakov's "The Jewish Question, 1860-1886" are explicitly anti-Semitic. For them Jews were the antithesis of Christian virtues and spirituality; they were "Yankels"-ridiculous as "plucked chickens" and odious as merciless exploiters of the peasantry. Aksakov argued "the hateful idea of capital never found a better incarnation than in Jewry."4 Pushkin's "The Miserly Knight" and Chekhov's "Rothschild's Fiddle" were more subtle and light-hearted, but hardly flattering. Indeed, Chekhov concluded, "the Jews are alien to, and cannot understand the soul, the form, the humor that are at the core of, Russian life."5

The counter-arguments of "revolutionary democrats" like N. Chernyshevsky, M. Saltykov-Shchedrin, D. Mordovtsev, and especially M. Gorky, stressed the victimization and miserly circumstances in which the vast majority of Jews found themselves, but these extenuations usually fell on deaf ears.6 Philo-Semitic impulses, moreover, were rarely unqualified. V. Korolenko, considered by many a prime example of the liberal Russian intelligentsia, did indeed attempt to present the reality of the harsh conditions of life in the Jewish Pale of Settlement during the latter part of the nineteenth century. But in doing so (as in his short story-Sudnyi den1),7 he reaffirmed many negative stereotypes of Jews.

Other allegedly pro-Jewish Russian authors, on closer inspection, turn out to be even more ambivalent. Thus, N. Leskov's Vladychnyi sud,8 while ostensibly lamenting the plight of the Jews-specifically the fate of a Jewish boy coerced into baptism-invoked many of the most repulsive moral and even physical anti-Semitic stereotypes, such as describing the child's cowardly father sweating stinking blood. …

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